Opening the book

Mary Flynn once made a mistake— and now she doesn’t want it used against her

IN THE OPEN <br>“If there’s something from my past that may be used against me,” said Chico City Council candidate Mary Flynn, “it’s important that I bring it up so we can focus on the real issues and not have a mistake I made become a campaign issue.”

“If there’s something from my past that may be used against me,” said Chico City Council candidate Mary Flynn, “it’s important that I bring it up so we can focus on the real issues and not have a mistake I made become a campaign issue.”

Photo By Robert Speer

The dirtiest trick:
The most famous dirty trick in American political history was the Watergate burglary of June 1972, when Republican Party operatives broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters in an effort to steal internal campaign strategy documents. Media coverage of the burglary and subsequent cover-up forced Richard Nixon to become the only president in American history to resign from office.

In stating that clients of political consultant John Gillander “have had to disown him,” some readers may have been left the false impression that his clients won’t have anything further to do with him. Mr. Gillander reports that his clients are all satisfied with his work and would hire him again.

One of the most difficult things about running for public office is that it is so, well, public. Not only are candidates required to reveal their financial lives—the property they own, their sources of income—to avoid possible conflicts of interest, but they also are subject to unusual personal scrutiny. Voters naturally want to know as much as possible about candidates.

Most of us would find such public inspection uncomfortable, if not intolerable.

Sometimes scrutiny is used to discredit a candidate. Campaigns for major offices invariably have “opposition research” experts whose job is to dig up dirt that can be used against opponents. Others devise ways to create a twisted version of events. The so-called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” attack on John Kerry’s Vietnam military service is a good recent example from the presidential arena.

Chico voters may recall the election of 1992, when Barbara Boxer was making her first run for the U.S. Senate. Five days before the election, she was in a dead heat with her Republican opponent, a Southern California political commentator named Bruce Herschensohn.

That’s when Bob Mulholland, a longtime Chico activist who by then had risen to become political director of the state Democratic Party, dropped a bomb on the race. Speaking to a Democratic rally in Chico, he revealed that Herschensohn, who had made “family values” a big part of his campaign, had frequented a Los Angeles-area strip joint.

The media immediately picked up the allegations and took them statewide. The story was huge. Herschensohn, stunned, never regained his momentum. Boxer won by 3 percentage points.

Mulholland’s gambit was widely reviled as a “dirty trick,” and state party Chairman Phil Angelides was forced to suspend him briefly. Today he’s one of Angelides’ top aides.

Such tricks have been used in local elections, too. Many years ago, for example, a direct-mail flier accused a Chico City Council candidate of being a “baby-killer” because she’d given money to Planned Parenthood, not mentioning that the gift was targeted for family planning services, not abortion. More recently, political hatchet man John Gillander has become so notorious for making wild accusations against candidates he doesn’t like that former Republican Party employers have had to disown him.

In a political environment in which innocent actions can be twisted to look malign, who would want to run for office? Most of us have something in our past that we regret, and we’d probably think twice putting ourselves in a situation where we’d be forced to reveal it, no matter how sterling our qualifications.

Chico City Council candidate Mary Flynn knows that feeling well.

Flynn was so eager to run for council that she went to the City Clerk’s Office on the first day she could—July 17—to pull her nomination papers, arriving so early that the forms weren’t yet ready.

At a press conference later that morning, she became the first person to formally announce candidacy for the council in the Nov. 7 election.

She believes she’s fully prepared to hold the position. She’s held a high-level position in a major educational-publishing firm, she’s a veteran high-school math teacher, and she’s been active in the community, particularly as a founding board member of the Chico Community Shelter Partnership and a leader in the effort to build the Torres Community Shelter.

However, as she told CN&R during a recent interview in the kitchen of her small, cozy Avenues neighborhood home, there is an incident in her past that someone willing to be malicious could exploit in an effort to discredit her. So she decided to make it public herself.

“If there’s something from my past that may be used against me, it’s important that I bring it up so we can focus on the real issues and not have a mistake I made become a campaign issue.”

Sixteen years ago, she said, she attended a party thrown by a group of women friends. They were drinking, and Flynn was drinking right along with them. Afterward, she made the “terrible decision” to drive home. A police officer stopped her and arrested her for driving under the influence, slapping on a resisting arrest charge when she became lippy with him.

The immediate cost was considerable: a trip to jail, court time, mandated traffic school and AA meetings, a hefty fine, a huge hike in her insurance bill—the usual in such situations. “It wasn’t a pleasant experience,” she said.

She’d never been arrested before and hasn’t since, but the incident looms large in her mind, especially now that she’s running for office.

More important, though, her DUI citation served as a “blessing in disguise,” she said. She didn’t stop drinking immediately, but the process set in motion—attending meetings, going to traffic school—had an impact on her, as did the realization that she’d done something that was potentially dangerous to herself and others.

“I definitely feel that it was a pivotal event in my life,” she said. “It provided me the opportunity to stop and look inside and ask myself some hard questions. … It opened up a path that I don’t know I would have found on my own, and I’m really grateful for that.”

She realized that she had a problem with alcohol and was using it to fill a void in her life. She began to drink less, and 10 years ago she quit altogether.

Today she rejoices in her sobriety. Life has a rich spiritual dimension for her; her values have changed. She’s happier teaching algebra to teenagers and volunteering in the community than she was holding down a high-powered corporate job. Relationships mean more to her than money does. And she feels more present in her own life, more mindful of each moment.

“One summer several years ago,” she said, “I was looking at a crape myrtle tree, noticing how beautiful its blooms were, and I realized I’d never really looked at one before. I hadn’t realized they bloomed in the middle of summer. And I wondered what else I’d missed when I was drinking.”

Her only concern now is how her students will receive the news about her arrest. “How will I handle that?” she asked, and then quickly answered her own question: “Well, I’ll handle it the same way I handle anything else when kids come to me with big questions. Being real—what a novel idea.”